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Spinal Tumors

What are Spinal Tumors?

Tumors of the spinal cord are abnormal growths of tissue found within or around the spinal cord or bony spinal column. Benign tumors are noncancerous, and malignant tumors are cancerous. Any abnormal growth, whether benign or malignant, can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function.

Spinal tumors are named by the region of the spine in which they occur: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), lumbar (lower back), and sacrum (pelvis). Intradural-extramedullary tumors are located inside the thin covering (dura) of the spinal cord. Intramedullary tumors grow inside the spinal cord, and extradural tumors are located outside the dura.

Causes of Spinal Tumors

Tumors that originate in the spinal column are called primary tumors, and their causes are mostly unknown. Some are caused by exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemical or by out-of-control growth among cells that surround and support neuron-specific genetic disease, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 and tuberous sclerosis.

Metastatic or secondary tumors in the spine are caused by cancer cells that break away from a primary tumor located in another region of the body. Tumors can place pressure on the tissues and nerves of the spine and impair function. Common primary cancers that may spread to the spine include breast, lung, and prostate. Other cancers that may spread include cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, kidney and thyroid; lymphoma; melanoma; and sarcoma.

Early Signs of Spinal Tumor and Diagnosis

Back pain that is not caused by injury, activity, or physical stress is the most common symptom of spinal tumors. Other symptoms include loss of sensation or muscle weakness in the legs, arms, or chest; a stiff neck or back; difficulty walking and frequent falls; decreased sensitivity to pain, heat, and cold; loss of bowel or bladder function; and paralysis in various parts of the body, depending on which nerves are compressed. These symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over time.

Our spine specialists typically diagnose spinal tumors after a neurological examination; laboratory tests; imaging techniques such as bone scan, CT scan, MRI, and positron emission tomography; and a biopsy, in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor and examined. Malignant tumors are given a numbered score that reflects the rate of malignancy, which helps doctors determine how to treat the tumor and predict the likely outcome and long-term prognosis for each patient.


The most common treatments for spinal tumors are observation, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Your doctors also may prescribe steroids to reduce any tumor-related swelling inside the spinal column.

If a tumor has no symptoms or mild symptoms and does not appear to be changing, your doctor may recommend monitoring it with regular MRI scans. If surgery is an option, the procedure and approach will depend on a number of factors, including the location in the spinal canal. In the case of malignant tumors, some respond better to chemotherapy, while others may respond to radiation.

What You Can Expect at UTHealth Neurosciences

The UTHealth Neurosciences Spine Center brings together a multidisciplinary team of board-certified, fellowship-trained neurosurgeons, neurologists, researchers, and pain management specialists who work together to help provide relief for even the most complex problems. Your team will share insights, leading to better treatment decisions and outcomes.

We first investigate nonsurgical treatment options, including medical management, pain management, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and watchful waiting. When surgery is needed, our neurosurgeons routinely employ innovative minimally invasive techniques. Throughout the treatment process, we will work closely with the doctor who referred you to ensure a smooth transition back to your regular care. While you are with us, you will receive expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.

Anatomy of the neck and spine

  • The cervical region (vertebrae C1-C7) encompasses the first seven vertebrae under the skull. Their main function is to support the weight of the head, which averages 10 pounds. The cervical vertebrae are more mobile than other areas, with the atlas and axis vertebra facilitating a wide range of motion in the neck. Openings in these vertebrae allow arteries to carry blood to the brain and permit the spinal cord to pass through. They are the thinnest and most delicate vertebrae.
  • The thoracic region (vertebrae T1-T12) is composed of 12 small bones in the upper chest. Thoracic vertebrae are the only ones that support the ribs. Muscle tension from poor posture, arthritis, and osteoporosis are common sources of pain in this region.
  • The lumbar region (vertebrae L1-L5) features vertebrae that are much larger to absorb the stress of lifting and carrying heavy objects. Injuries to the lumbar region can result in some loss of function in the hips, legs, and bladder control.
  • The sacral region (vertebrae S1-S5) includes a large bone at the bottom of the spine. The sacrum is triangular-shaped and consists of five fused bones that protect the pelvic organs.

Spine Disease and Back Pain

Contact Us

At UTHealth Neurosciences, we offer patients access to specialized neurological care at clinics across the greater Houston area. To ask us a question, schedule an appointment, or learn more about us, please call (713) 486-8100, or click below to send us a message. In the event of an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.